A Travellerspoint blog

May 2010

Bloem Bloem Bloem Boem Bloem

(pronounced, in this case 'Blum, blum, blum, blum blum'. Quickly and in descending tones)

Even that very morning, hostel staff were trying to dissuade us. 'Why are you going there?!', they cried. They even offered to phone our car rental agency and arrange for us to drop Ruth somewhere else, such as Johannesburg, and we had to physically leave to prevent it. The object of their scorn? Bloemfontein.

When the disparate states were being moulded into the country of South Africa back in 1910, as a way of keeping the states a bit happier and not concentrating power in one place, they decided upon a 3capital system. Thus, even though it is not necessarily logical, and is expensive in terms of people moving around and requiring accommodation in several places, even today South Africa has 3 capitals: Pretoria is the official capital, and home to most of the diplomats and embassies, etc; Cape Town is the legislative capital, where the government meets, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, where the laws are made and courts sit.

There is, pretty much everybody agrees, not much to see or do there and no real reason to visit as a tourist: hence the comments from the hostel staff that morning. In our case, it was simply somewhere reasonably easy to get to after the wedding, between Pretoria/Jo'burg (where Maaret had to go) and Cape Town, where I was going. It basically out of fairness to prevent one us having a long/expensive journey/drive alone, whilst the other person had little or no trip. And for all its lack of pretty much anything, Bloemfontein is a city large enough to have a useful car rental office for us to leave Ruth, and central to South Africa's road network meaning lots of bus connections.

In the end we didn't see much of Bloemfontein at all, and nothing that we did see was really exciting. We took a back route there, pretty much following the Lesothan border through the countryside, and arrived just in time to leave the car before the office shut. Thus having dropped Ruth, we sorted our bus tickets, left our bags at their office and then went to a shopping centre to wander a bit and then eat. Exciting, huh?

With that it was back to wait for our buses – both due after 11pm, and both over an hour late. Bloemfontein's central location mean buses from most of the South coast cities, plus and Cape Town all pass through enroute to/from Gauteng, and many do it late at night. It is one of the few bus stations I have been where the busiest time is 22-4am. Eventually, of course, both buses appeared and that was that.

Thus, for the second time this year, Maaret disappeared to catch a plane back to Europe whilst abandoning me to the care of an African hospital. I really should see a trend by now.

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An irrelevant picture to this entry, chucked in for no obvious reason

Posted by Gelli 13:55 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Money matters. Except it doesn't, easily, in South Africa

On the grand scheme of things, I am a reasonably laid back traveler. I don't tend to get angry or wound up over that much and I am rarely in a really serious hurry. I'm a firm believer in the 'sh1t happens' school of thinking.

But one thing which has really got on my nerves slightly is the South African banking system.

I have used banks, ATMs and changed money all over the world, including some serious backwaters and dodgy-as-hell places, and can honestly say that I have never come across a more useless, inefficient and user unfriendly system as the South Africans have managed to contrive.

Take ATM's. In much of the less developed part of the world, many ATMs are only connected to either the Visa or Mastercard network. Visa in Africa, Mastercard in much of Asia. Then there are exceptions: Rwanda, for example is by African standards a very advanced country with a network of ATMs, but which are strangely not connected to the international system. But you learn that quickly, and get money inside the bank or change it at Bureaus. And in Malawi, because their largest note is the 500kwacha, the most you can ever takeout is 20000, or 40notes (roughly 100euro). Which is obviously plenty for most local needs, but if you are paying for activities or excursions, going off the beaten track, or trying to minimise withdrawals due to their cost, it can be frutrating. Any or all of these quirks can be annoying, but with a bit of forward planning and quickly learning, you accept it and it is all fine.

South Africa, then, should be a breeze. It has an extensive network of ATM's, generally linked to Visa, Mastercard and Maestro networks and has some decent sized notes. But some cards randomly don't work in all ATMs, or don't work all of the time. And, worse, the ATMs don't like giving you information. The amounts listed when you try and withdraw are normally very small (500rand max), so you end up pushing 'other amount'. Here you can input how much you want, BUT no ATM that i came across would tell you it's maximum withdrawal limit. It would either say declined, and let you try and again, or spit out your card with a big failure sign. Neither of these helps the nerves of travelers, especially newly arrived ones who suddenly think their card has been canceled and they are up sh1t creek. I would not be surprised if the banks probably share profits with the phone companies for panic calls to overseas banks.

Normally, my cards work everywhere - I have never in my life been anywhere before where I have had any regular problem (unless the whole system was down, or in one case, the magnetic strip on my card died). In South Africa, I would say that 75% of my ATM transactions were unsuccessful for whatever reason, none of them due to lack of funds or card problems on my side.

For the record, I think the highest withdrawal allowed from a South African ATM is 3000 Rand (Nedbank and Standard), but i'm not sure. Some might be higher. Many are definitely lower, with a 2000 or 1500 limit – one hostel I stayed in had an ATM with only a 500limit - and some banks seem to vary depending on time, day, phase of the moon and location of the ATM. Most give you a stack of 100bills, but occasionally they will give you solely 200s, or, as in one transaction, only 50s which gives you a wad which then gets stuck in the machine unless you yank them hard and repeatedly.

Then there are scams. Robberies at ATMs used to be commonplace. Even now using ATMs only in major locations and shopping centres (and not ones which are often left unused for many minutes) is highly recommended, and stand alone ones should be avoided. Even this is no guarantee. There is an FNB (First National Bank) ATM – at the bank, not a stand alone - on Long Street. This is Cape Town's biggest tourist and going out street, yet if you put in your card - any card – it will give you money but also automatically withdraw everything else in your account and move it to an unknown location. Complain all you want, but you are unlikely to ever see your money again. Both the bank and the police have been told many times, but neither cares or wants to do anything about it in the slightest.

And then there is changing money. This is easy and painless in pretty much every other country in the world. Changing money from hard cash to local currency – assuming the rate is good - is always better value than using ATMs. Except in South Africa. To allegedly prevent money laundering, no bank/bureau will change money (or even tell you what you will receive) until after they have taken your passport, and filled out lots of boxes on a computer. It is only then, 10minutes later, that you discover that despite the rate in the window saying you will receive 11.45 Rand for a Euro, that you are actually getting something closer to 9.8. What?!!! you say in horror (if you actually realise, anyway)?

And here is the thing: You can spend - as i did one afternoon – several hours traipsing around town looking at all the different rates offered, before finding the best one and going in, and it doesn't matter one jot. Nobody - NOBODY - displays the rate that you receive. What they display are the banks/bureaus rates. On top of that there is a bank fee to change the money, and then a commission rate that they take, neither of which is mentioned anywhere at all, either that it exists or what the rate is. Nobody will even tell you their commission rate until after they have played with your passport and a computer for 10minutes, which means that everybody ends up wasting lots of time.

Even if you accept this and decide to change anyway, there are potential pitfalls. I always carry a chunk of foreign currency for emergencies, and on my last day as I was low on Rand, I decided that as a bit of a safety buffer I would change a bit. I didn't want to use an ATM again (due to the fees) and figured that changing a small note would workout better, even after the commission is included. So I went to change 20USD. The official rate from xe.com would get me 150Rand, whilst most advertised rates would give me roughly 140-142. I figured that with commission and fees, i would get maybe 125-130in cash. Not a great deal, but enough to tide me over.

Not so. The minimum commission charge that I found was a whopping 80 Rand (roughly 11USD): and in one place it was 135Rand. I could have changed 20USD and got 6 Rand back – SIX RAND!!!!! - which is less than 1USD. Luckily, I ended up changing with somebody in the hostel at the rate of 150, which both of us were very happy with.

It really is very sneaky, and should not be legal. But South Africa is, I have sadly realised, not somewhere you go for fairness or morality, and really, I should not be surprised that it's banking facilities and system are significantly more backward than those of Congo, Iraq or Afghanistan. You even got a better – and fairer - deal in Zimbabwe at the height of their financial collapse.

Basically, unless you are changing very large amounts of money (and in which case they would probably report you for suspected money laundering and not allow you change money anyway) it's just not worth it, and so to all travelers to South Africa, i would say DO NOT take cash to exchange: It is the only country in the world that is guaranteed to screw you over and give you less.

If you do need money and don't want to use a card, sell heroin. Or a kidney. It is cheaper, easier, safer. And you'll get a much better rate for less paperwork.

Posted by Gelli 03:53 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Drakensberg

I should write some stuff about the stunning North Drakensberg mountains. But I won't.

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Cathedral Peak

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Doreen Falls, near Cathedral Peak

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Devils Hoek, in Northern Natal National Park

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Posted by Gelli 20:48 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Wedding

Most of you have never seen it before, and you will almost certainly never see it again. It was not by choice at all, and I argued long and hard to prevent it, but In the end I had to give in. And I have been told that I have to show it here. So, to much incredulity and no doubt laughter, here is a picture of me wearing real trousers. And a shirt. And, stunningly, a tie. No shoes though. That would have been pushing it just a bit, especially as I had had to buy all the rest of the stuff.

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The occasion was the happy wedding of Brendon and Michaela, neither of whom, naturally, I had ever met beforehand. I'm not always a big fan of weddings, partly because people seem to expect that you dress up, and partly because many of the ones I have been to have degenerated into fights, arrests or family feuds of one sort or another. And thus to go to a wedding in a foreign country having never met the bride or groom before just seemed wrong. But Michaela is one of Maaret's best friends (the wedding was the reason she had come back to Africa), I had been included on the invitation, and as I had to drive her there anyway, I figured I may as well make an effort to go.

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Brendon is a kiwi and Michaela grew up in South Africa, though they have been living in London for years. The most striking thing to me was that there were actually more Kiwi's at the wedding than locals/South Africans, and also despite the fact that they are London based, Maaret was the only guest who had made the effort to come from Europe, which was a bit surprising to me.

Lots of Kiwis away from home pretty much means that booze supplies will be well taken care of, and indeed they were. The food was pretty good, the bride and her bridesmaids all stunning, and the whole event – excepting some very strange parts of the loooong sermon by the priest conducting the wedding, and his instance on producing Michaela's name wrong throughout the ceremony – was thoroughly enjoyable. Yes, I looked like i'd been done up like a kipper, and felt like a muppet, but that is neither here nor there. The weather – stunningly for us – held out brilliantly and everybody was happy, full, and drunk. If all weddings were like this, i'd be quite happy.

Posted by Gelli 13:45 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Sani and Lesotho

Lesotho is the highest country in the world. By that, I mean that it's lowest point of altitude (EG: height above sea level) is higher than any other country in the world. It is a mostly wild, grassy country, home to nomadic herders and shepherds: Lesothans always do well in the world sheep-shearing tournaments. The population is a bit under 2million, though the majority are in the capital Maseru, and a few smaller towns in the North and West. It has mountains, but mostly the country is just hills and elevations (from the low point of the country): they are mountains only from down below, in South Africa.

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I rarely get the opportunity, but any excuse to put in sheep photos is always happily accepted!

And because they are mountains from South Africa, entering Lesotho, especially from the East and South means winding up high mountain passes. For us, this meant the Sani Pass. The Sani Pass is the only border crossing between Lesotho and KwaZulu natal, the only border in the East of the country that can be passed by vehicles: A few other crossings are passable on foot, pony or horse. Even at the Sani Pass, it is 4x4 only.

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It doesn't actually look so steep when taken this way!

The road is an old cattle track up the Drakensberg Escarpment which has been widened for vehicles: But wide it is not - A single rough, rocky road that winds its way upwards. The border posts are an hour apart (one at the top, the other the bottom), and the road is not for the faint hearted. Steep hairpin bends and sheer drops are the order of the day, as are marvelous views, and it was for this reason that I had wanted to see it.

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Looking down the pass into South Africa from the pub at the top

We had wanted to go the previous day, but it hadn't been possible. Neither had a pony trek. But it worked out brilliantly, because it had been miserable as hell whereas we had the most glorious clear skies and views: For once our weather luck was changing.

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There is not much more I can say: the trip up the pass was great, despite one landrover breaking down and needing to be replaced at the border, and the second one having difficulties halfway up meaning we had to push-start it. Not always ideal on a steep road with sheer drops. The scenery was brilliant.

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Traditional transport in Lesotho

In Lesotho, we didn't do much: Watched some herders in the distance, marvel at the stark beauty of the place (no trees or bushes, just constant grassy rolling hills and gorse type flowers), look at the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro, get a little look inside a traditional hut, watch some sheep being sheared (WooHoo!) and have a drink in Africa's highest pub.

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This type of empty rolling scenery is, we were told, pretty much what 80% of the country looks like

It would transpire that on this trip at least, this would be my only visit to Lesotho. Short, and fleeting, but leaving me in the mood for more.

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With Fred in the highest Pub in Africa, at 2874metres

Posted by Gelli 17:34 Archived in South Africa Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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